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Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon Hardcover – June 25, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. In this extensively researched account of that epic achievement, former publishing executive and prize-winning author Nelson (The First Heroes) moves seamlessly between Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, their nervous families and the equally nervous NASA ground crew. Nelson follows Armstrong in nail-biting detail as he tries to find a place to land with less than a minuteÖs worth of fuel remaining. A large central section of the book digresses to provide some backstory on the feverish American-Soviet game of one-upmanship in the year leading up to the Apollo 11 launch. For instance, Nelson describes Apollo 8 as an almost reckless gamble by NASA to beat the Russians in sending men to orbit the moon The book also describes the sad personal toll the mission took. Collins was best able to deal with the cost of fame yet expressed the anticlimax of life after Apollo 11: I seem gripped by earthly ennui. Space fans and readers who remember that momentous time will find this an exciting read. (June 29)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Using interviews, NASA oral histories, and declassified CIA material, Nelson has produced a magnificent, very readable account of the steps that led to the success of Apollo 11. In the 40 years since the first moon landing and the 52 years since Sputnik was launched, it isn’t always remembered now what an experiment the Apollo program was, nor that the space race was as much a military as a scientific campaign. The space program was launched using the knowledge of rockets available at the end of World War II and former Third Reich scientists working in both American and Soviet programs. When it came to sending men into orbit and beyond, routines and equipment had to be invented and tested in minute increments. Nelson’s descriptions take us back, showing the assorted teams and how they worked together. We meet the astronauts and find out why they were eager to take on this mission, and we also meet the hypercareful technicians, without whom neither men nor craft would have left the ground. Nelson shows, too, how the technology and the politics of the times interrelated. Leslie Fish, songwriter, summed it up perfectly, “To all the unknown heroes, sing out to every shore / What makes one step a giant leap is all the steps before.” Nelson brightly illuminates those steps. --Frieda Murray
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"All the conditions necessary for murder are met if you shut two men in a cabin measuring eighteen feet by twenty and leave them together for two months." - Russian cosmonaut Valeri Ryumin, from ROCKET MEN
"Imagine this scenario: It's 2029, and a lunar mission lands at Tranquility Base. A crew of heroic young Indians - or Chinese - quietly folds and puts away America's sixty-year-old flag. If the world saw that on television, wouldn't the gesture be worth tens of billions of rupees or yuan?" - SF author Bruce Sterling on America's abdication of civilian-controlled world space leadership post-Apollo, from ROCKET MEN
In my sixty-two years, there are four events that I seemingly remember as if yesterday: the Kennedy assassination, the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, getting the news of my father's death, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But memory plays tricks. According to author Craig Nelson, the first step onto the Moon's surface occurred on July 20, 1969 at 9:56 PM CST, or 7:56 PM PST in California; yet I would've sworn that when I watched the event on television in Los Angeles it was mid-day. Evidently it was the landing I recall, not the initial EVA.
Note: An online encyclopedia has that first step being taken at 10:56 PM EDT, which would be 9:56 PM CDT, i.e. Central Daylight Time, not Central Standard Time as the author indicates. So, now I'm even more confused - but apparently not the only one.
ROCKET MEN is Nelson's otherwise fine telling of the Apollo 11 mission and the lead-up to it. I just hope his facts are more accurate than my memory.
ROCKET MEN incorporates a section of thirty-nine useful photographs.
Since most of my generation is more or less acquainted with how the Apollo 11 flight played out, perhaps the more instructive section of the book is that which describes the evolution of America's rocketry program and manned missions in the milieu of the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union perceived (or misperceived as the case may be) the abilities of the other. The competitive race approached being a farce on a grand scale. And, in the last chapter, when the post-mission lives of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins are briefly summarized, the reader realizes that personal glory with a capital "G" is sometimes best left unrealized.
I was a bit puzzled, however, by the author's treatment, or lack thereof, of the four manned Apollo missions preceding 11. The narrative might lead the reader to believe that Apollo 8, a flight which the text briefly summarizes and memorably sent American astronauts around the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968, was the first. Yet it was Apollo 7, about which there is no mention at all, that lofted the Command Module into Earth orbit and which was the initial manned test of the Apollo vehicle in space. And Nelson says nothing about Apollo 9 or 10, the former testing the docking maneuver of the Command and Lunar Modules in Earth orbit, and the latter, which was a full dress rehearsal for 11 and included everything but the actual lunar touchdown.
Of course, the core of ROCKET MEN is the odyssey of Apollo 11, and value is added when Craig describes the landing of the Lunar Module in nail-biting detail; it's gripping stuff.
I, for one, can say that July 20, 1969 was the time of my life that I was proudest to be an American. Honor is due Nelson for doing the events of the day justice.
First, the good parts of the book. Nelson tries to retell the story of Apollo 11 by stressing the huge risks involved with the program. The public, during the 1960s and many years later, never appreciated some of the risks involved. This is well illustrated early in the book, when Nelson recounts a debate among lunar geologists over the composition of the moon. At the time, geologists weren't even quite sure what the moon was made of. Some though the surface might be a puffy dust that would not support a landing craft. Eventually, the presence of boulders convinced most that the moon had a hard, rocky surface. But just the fact that there were questions showed how risky and bold the entire endeavor really was.
Second, Nelson does a good job teasing out the personalities of the astronauts. They weren't all cast from The Right Stuff. For Nelson, the symbol of this is the slide rule (for those of you too young to remember, it was an ancient form of the calculator and the ultimate geek accessory). The astronauts as test pilots - not fighter pilot jocks - had both engineering background and top flight experience. The had very different personalities, but were (surprisingly) overall a shy and unemotional group of people.
The best part of the book: you will learn a lot of interesting trivia about the U.S. space program. Since this is the most recent book, Nelson is able to rely on information that has come out more recently and combine them to tell an exciting story. Several news articles have relied on this book to highlight the top 10 most surprising facts about Apollo. For example, BBC's list is here: [...]. My advice is to read over one of these top 10 lists and if you are excited by those tidbits, there's a whole lot more in Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon. My favorite piece of trivia is that Buzz Aldrin reportedly considered refusing to accept the assignment on Apollo 11 or resigning from NASA, since he feared the ensuing publicity he knew would accompany the mission. He is also reported to have wanted a later assignment where he could focus on the science, rather than who made the first step on the moon. Now Buzz is promoting space exploration using rap songs! Who'd have thought?
Now, for the drawbacks. I gave the book only four stars since the book doesn't seem well organized. It's not strictly chronological (indeed, it starts with the Apollo 11 launch, then the three astronauts, then jumps back in time to the beginning of the program). At times, it felt like the material was organized somewhat randomly. The anecdotes are still fun to read, but I feel like the organization should have been a bit clearer (perhaps with an introduction explaining the author's organization plan).
Nelson uses a lot of bloc quotes in retelling the story of Apollo 11. This has both drawbacks and benefits. Sometimes it is great to hear the story directly from the actual people involved in the program. Sometimes though, the quotes are too long and could be summarized or edited for easier reading. It also indicates that Nelson relied heavily on other authors' scholarship rather than original research. For a casual reader who wants to learn a bit more about Apollo 11, this isn't a major concern. If you want more detail or original research, check out the other books in Nelson's bibliography. If you want a summer read to learn more, this book will work fine for you..
The story of Apollo 11 is a great story and Nelson pays honor to the risks involved and the men who participated. The overall story is told reasonably well, and the book covers a lot of great trivia. The issues with Nelson's portrayal of Apollo technology are frankly collateral and don't justify giving the book only 1 star (as some reviewers have). The book is clearly about the politics and men involved with making Apollo 11 happen, and in that it succeeds.
Note: unlike Andrew Chaikin's inspiring A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon is primarily about Apollo 11. Since it is published more recently, it takes advantage of some material that wasn't available to Chaikin. However, if you are interested in learning about the later Apollo missions, you'll have to read A Man on the Moon.
Overall, I'd give this book 3.5 stars if that were possible.